Sunday, 26 April 2015

How do I know whether I am helping or enabling?

I can't tell you how many clients have asked me this question!  Clients who in all sincerity wanted to help a son, daughter, husband, mother or friend, only to discover that they were fueling the very problem they were hoping to eliminate.

The word "enabling" initially emerged from the literature on alcoholism.  It was used to describe situations where the spouse of an alcoholic in a desperate attempt to get their partner sober, would try everything from lecturing to searching the house for bottles to pouring the alcohol down the drain.  It was discovered that rather than decreasing the drinking behavior, more often than not, it exacerbated their partner's drinking.  The addict simply became better at lying, sneaking around, hiding bottles and covering their tracks.  Why?  Well, think about it.  I have yet to meet someone who liked being controlled.  So, when someone tries to control us, the instinct often is to fight back.  In fact, the addict can become so focused on being angry at their spouse for "nagging" and trying to control them that it becomes a great distraction from them having to examine for themselves how self destructive their behavior is.  The war with their partner consumes them and as a result, they don't have to come up against their own internal struggle. Similarly, a mother who hounds her 16-year-old son to study, may find that he is so caught up in being angry with her for getting on his case, that he hasn't really considered whether it is important to him if he graduates high school or not!

Nowadays, the word enabling can be used to describe any interpersonal situation where attempts to "help" only make the problem worse in the long-term because they allow the other person to refrain from taking full responsibility for their behavior.  Enabling can take many forms.  It can involve bailing someone out, making excuses for their behavior, lying for them, trying to fix the problem for them or colluding in denial and pretending that the problem does not even exist!  One of the most vivid examples of enabling that I can recall from my practice was working with a middle aged couple where the husband had recently been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes.  The husband had taken the news quite casually, whereas, the wife was beside herself with concern about the very real potential medical complications (e.g., blindness, loss of limbs, coma) of not controlling the illness.   In reaction to her husband's failure to take steps to address his condition, she researched the illness, bought cook books, diligently prepared meals for him and started him on a rigorous discipline of healthy eating.  A crisis erupted in their marriage, however, when she found out quite by accident that her husband had been frequenting the greasy spoon down the street for their fabulous burgers and fries!  The wife though very intelligent, was unable to accept that until her husband was motivated to address his illness, proper management of his condition was unlikely to happen.  Overcome by her fear of losing him, she could not resist continuing to try to control his diet though she knew intellectually that doing so was a lost cause.

How do you know whether you are helping or enabling?  Well the best yardstick to use prior to offering "help" is to ask the question: Is the other person able?  Simply put, helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing for themselves.  Enabling is doing for someone things that they could or should be doing for themselves.  If the person cannot help themselves, it makes sense to intervene and offer assistance.  If, on the other hand, the person is perfectly able to act on their own behalf, then they have their own reasons for refraining and pushing the river is more likely to lead to rebellion than to compliance.  Ask yourself, "Does this person need help or do I think she needs help?  Sometimes, what you want for someone you care about is simply different from what they want for themselves.  It can be hard to get out of self righteousness and accept that there is no right or wrong, just opinion.  It is much more difficult, though, when the other person's behavior is clearly self destructive as is the case with addicts of any kind.  It can be very hard to stand on the sidelines and watch while someone you love self destructs. It takes enormous strength to keep on loving them and yet not try to control their behavior.  Feelings of helplessness and fear can drive us to engage in some pretty crazy behaviors.  When someone you love challenges you to have to stand by while they do things to harm themselves, know that there is no shame in seeking out help from a qualified psychologist.  This is one of the most heart breaking and difficult life situations to manage. There is no need to have to do it alone.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Are you a parental child?

When you were growing up, did you often feel like you had to be the "responsible one", the "good child", "the reliable one", the one that could be counted on to take care of others and to do "the right thing"?  Did you have to look after younger siblings in fundamental ways such as getting them dressed in the morning? making them meals? getting them to school and ensuring they went to bed on time?  Did you find yourself worrying about adult-like things like whether or not there would be enough money to pay the bills or whether or not your parents would make it home safely at night? Were you at home tending to household chores or working a part-time job while other kids were outside playing without a care in the world?  Were you the teenager that always volunteered to be the "designated driver"?  Did you feel responsible to make sure that other kids made it home safe and sound?  Did you seldom feel that there was anyone that you could turn to for guidance or support?  If some of these things are true for you, then you very well may have been a parental child.

Family systems theorists have observed that when parents for whatever reason (e.g. alcoholism, domestic violence, mental health problems, physical disability or recent immigration) are unable to fulfill their duties as parents, oftentimes, one of the children (often but not always the eldest) will step into the parental role in order to fill the void.  It is instinct, unconscious and a matter of survival.  If I can take care of my parent(s), then maybe, they will be able to take care of me.

Parental children bring into their adult lives some wonderful strengths.  They often take on strong leadership roles.  People rely on them because they get the task done and are reliable.  Often they are excellent organizers and good at taking care of others.  Working as a therapist, though, I am also aware that parental children face losses and challenges and need support to contend with these. For example, they do not easily ask for help because it simply is not in their repertoire.  Their experience is that people count on them, not vice versa.  However, once in the door and able to accept guidance, parental children work hard in therapy as they often have in life.  Furthermore, one would think that being "super responsible" (a term used to describe feeling overly responsible for others) means that parental children know how to take care of themselves.  However, this is often not the case.  In fact, the focus on others' needs often leaves the parental child ignorant of her own wants and needs.  An important piece of her therapeutic work may well be learning how to identify and address her own feelings and building a more solid sense of self.  Parental children often have to face real sadness about what they missed growing up.  Many do not know how to play because they never experienced much of that as kids.  Often being able to be carefree and spontaneous was and still is beyond their realm of experience.  They are serious adults who do not know much about how to be light-hearted. They often worry far too much.  

Many of the parental children that I have worked with in therapy have had to learn basics that come naturally to others like: how to receive from others, how to be gentle with themselves, how to tune in to their own needs and how to relax and have fun.  As adults, we tend to do what is familiar, not necessarily what is healthy.   We tend to lean into the familiar and go with what we know.  It requires awareness and mindfulness to stop operating on automatic pilot and fill the holes of what has been missing in order to attain balance in our lives.  While working with parental children has often meant helping them to navigate through rough waters of anger and loss, it ultimately freed them to create a life that was truly theirs, rather than one based almost exclusively on service to others at the expense of self.